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Monday
Nov122012

Review: Fractured Spirits

Fractured Spirits: Hauntings at the Peoria State Hospital, by Sylvia Shults

Release date for Fractured Spirits is February, 15, 2013. To pre-order, please contact the author at sylvias@darkcontinents.com

Reviewed by Ophelia Julien

Haunts of the Mentally Ill

Author Sylvia Shults at the Bowen Building of the Peoria State Hospital in Bartonville, IIllinoisNothing screams haunted more than an abandoned hospital for the mentally ill, or “insane asylum” as they are usually called. In the introduction to her newest book, Fractured Spirits, author Sylvia Shults even refers to the tradition of using an old, decrepit, deserted institution for the mentally ill in both film and print tales of horror: dead crazy people come back to haunt the site of their frequently gruesome lives as well as their equally grisly demises. 

In Fractured Spirits, Ms. Shults does not shy away from the expected haunted-asylum elements: malevolent spirits, ghost hunters, tales of abuse and cruel mistreatment of helpless patients, echoes of the mayhem caused by violent and possibly dangerous inmates. On the other hand, Fractured Spirits is a glorious departure from those same traditional elements, finding hope and light in a place that would seemingly be a pit of despair and darkness. 

The book shares some of the history of the Peoria State Hospital in Bartonville, Illinois.

The book shares some of the history of the Peoria State Hospital in Bartonville, Illinois. It also touches upon the true story of Dr. George Zeller, the extraordinary pioneer of humane treatment for the hospital’s patients, those institutionalized and marginalized members of society in the early 20th century. Instead of restraints and locked doors, Dr. Zeller insisted on quality care, respect, and dignity for his charges. His kind had never been seen before and would probably still be a rarity today. 

Dr. Zeller built the state hospital into a homey, safe place for people who would, at that time, normally have been strapped down, locked away, and most likely forgotten by the general public. As Ms. Shults observes, little wonder that so many of these now-deceased patients are reluctant to move along. Why not cling to the one place that was home to them during their tortured lives? 

Ms. Shults is not only a bona fide aficionado of the supernatural, she is a ghost hunter as well, and so her book is a feast of personal experiences, shared accounts of fellow investigators, and best of all, ghost stories .

And so Peoria State Hospital is haunted, rather like saying that Albert Einstein was a touch intelligent. Ms. Shults is not only a bona fide aficionado of the supernatural, she is a ghost hunter as well, and so her book is a feast of personal experiences, shared accounts of fellow investigators, and best of all, ghost stories . To her credit, she has also gone out of her way to debunk or lay bare many of the urban legends surrounding the place, the tales told in delicious whispers full of details that would do a tabloid proud yet have no factual basis. 

Written in a friendly, conversational style, Fractured Spirits is an easy read that will enthrall and entertain, and - like all good ghost story collections -  linger on in your mind long after you close the book and turn out the lights. 

After all, the stories are true. 

Saturday
Oct202012

Review: Bad Juju

Bad Juju, by Dina Rae is available in e-book format from Amazon

Reviewed by Ophelia Julien

All Good Fun Until the Zombie Shows Up

Earlier this year, I read and reviewed Dina Rae’s Halo of the Damned. Given that the subject matter of that book involved fallen angels, demons, and a blood-thirsty ancient cult, it seemed to be about the darkest story Ms. Rae could have to offer. I was wrong.

Bad Juju is the tale of what happens when the world of a handful of high school students and their families collides with that of an elderly Haitian bokor, or Voodoo priest, who has been incongruously displaced to a trailer park in Hayward, Wisconsin. The bokor, named Lucien Nazaire, knows he is coming to the end of his unnaturally long life and is looking for an heir to the dark wisdom he has amassed, for Lucien is a practitioner of the darkest form of Voodoo: grave robbing, dismemberment, shape-shifting, soul-stealing, zombie-making, everything malevolent that can be imagined.

Enter Jake La Rue and Henry Novak, two high school students who have formed an unlikely bond over Jake’s loner status and Henry’s Asperger Syndrome. Jake lives at the same trailer park as Lucien and has befriended a man he sees as a stately and gracious old gent from Haiti. Lucien is all that, but once Jake brings Henry to meet the bokor, the truth starts to be revealed.

The first thing Lucien teaches his eager students is how to make a voodoo doll, and it’s all downhill from there. Even the basic, hopeful love spells the boys perform bend to the dark side with unforeseen and fatal consequences that affect the boys and some of their classmates. By the time Henry travels to Haiti with his family for a post-earthquake mission trip, the road to hell is not only paved and plastered with the best of intentions, it has morphed into the steepest of slippery slopes.

Through all the dark and shadow in this story, Ms. Rae manages to interlace a bright thread of love and romance.

Ms. Rae clearly relishes gifting her readers with horrific scenarios, each successive image somehow just a wee bit worse than the previous one. But all is not gloom and doom. The light in this book comes from Jake’s sweet, earnest, somehow untainted spirit, and the love he holds for the woman who is married to his abusive uncle. Through all the dark and shadow in this story, Ms. Rae manages to interlace a bright thread of love and romance.

Fans of the dark-and-roses type of fiction will enjoy curling up with Bad JuJu...

Fans of the dark-and-roses type of fiction will enjoy curling up with Bad JuJu, from the opening crisis to the redemptive resolution as the story winds down. Or almost winds down. At the end, Ms. Rae abandons the roses to hand the reader one last slice of darkness to savor when the story has ended, which nicely illustrates the point of this genre: one final nightmare to take away when all is said and done. Enjoy!

Wednesday
Aug292012

Review: Cheeseland

Cheeseland by Randy Richardson available in trade paperback from Eckhartz Press and in e-book from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Sony

Reviewed by Mike O'Mary

Cheeseland is a fun coming-of-age novel with one of those archetypal "bad influence" friends from your adolescence. I really enjoyed this book.

The protagonist is even-keeled Daniel McAllister, a guy who grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Chicago and then went on to better things. His best friend as an adolescent was Lance Parker -- one of those great, universal characters. We ALL had a Lance in our lives...the "bad influence" kid your parents didn't want around. Or maybe YOU were "Lance" when you were growing up...the guy who always had the crazy, irresponsible idea to do something you shouldn't do (in this case, go on a road trip to Wisconsin instead of going to your high school graduation ceremony). Somehow, we're never quite able to say "no" to the Lances in our lives, and in Cheeseland, Randy Richardson shows how that plays out over a lifetime.

There are serious undertones to this novel, including some dark secrets that haunt Daniel and Lance from adolescence into adulthood. But there is also a lot of humor, especially on the aforementioned road trip, which hit close to home. I was a bit of a "Lance" in my day, and I remember all too well how a spur-of-the-moment idea like a road trip can lead to lots of fun -- and lots of trouble. You get both in Cheeseland.

Bottom line: this is a very well written coming-of-age novel. Highly recommended.

Mike O'Mary is the founder of Dream of Things Publishing and author of Wise Men and Other Stories 

Tuesday
Jul102012

Review: The One Hundred

The One Hundred  by Zia Ahmad

Reviewed by Megan Renehan

I’m really, really into details.  They can make or break a book for me.  All the action in the world can’t make up for the lack of those one or two incredible phrases that so perfectly describe a character, a place, a situation that I can see it clearly, exactly as the author intended.  The One Hundred is filled with those details, details that infuse this story with humanity and pathos, and plumb the depths of hope, sadness, loyalty, and fear. 

This novel offers us an intimate view of Javed Iqbal’s real-life crimes and their repercussions.  A rock in a pond, Iqbal’s horrifying murder and disposal of 100 young boys in Pakistan in the late 1990s ripples outwards, connecting the novel’s three main characters in layered rings of tragedy.  Yosef, Saif, and Jogi are all street children who have suffered loss at the hands of Iqbal and end up on a quest for vengeance.  We get to know these boys over the course of the novel, which alternates focus between the characters.  We learn of the horrors and difficulties facing street children in Pakistan.  Ahmad succinctly summarizes the atrocities Yosef was forced to deal with as a child:

On a cold January morning the following year, Yosef sat at a bench outside the bus station, waiting for the bus to arrive. It had been over six months since he stabbed Karim. That day, Mullah Aziz had told him the truth about his parents. He shook his head as the mullah had described how Yosef’s mother was raped in prison by a prison guard. The guard, a married man and his father, contacted Mullah Aziz to come take Yosef away when he turned seven. His mother, Mullah Aziz said, was to be tried as an adulterer in addition to her previous pending charges, since there were no witnesses to come forward and support her claim of rape. 

Though the boys’ circumstances push them into deplorable acts, by making us privy to their stories, Ahmad ensures the reader’s sympathy.  He counteracts the effects the boys’ behavior would normally have on the reader by showing us their souls. 

Jogi had rescued the boy from Meera. That night he founded his own gang, consisting of the one boy he had just rescued. Both gangs avoided interaction by not mingling or intruding into each other’s territory. One thing Meera’s gang was known for was the rampant use of drugs. He encouraged and provided hashish, ganja, and glue to his group. At the end of each day he and his friends gathered in small, unnoticed alleys and shared yellow paper bags of sniffing glue. Jogi, on the other hand, prohibited the use of any kind of drugs among his gang. Occasionally one of them would be tempted to try a free sample offered by one of Meera’s boys, but would be intercepted by Jogi just in time before they were addicted to it. 

“Look at yourself!” Jogi had growled at Kamal, one of the boys he had found last summer intoxicated in the park. “You don’t think life is rough enough for you?”

Any novel that can teach me something is one that I fall for.  Ahmad’s ability to so thoroughly describe the lives of the characters in The One Hundred makes for an incredible reading experience.  Immediately upon beginning this book, the reader is transported to a world we are quite likely unfamiliar with, a world of homelessness and poverty, survival and fear.  Ahmad doesn’t hide from the corruption street children must grapple with in order to survive, the trauma they face on a daily basis.  We are guided through a world that would make a satisfying story on its own, but Ahmad ups the ante by centering his tale on Iqbal’s mass murder.  We can’t help but continue reading. 

Ahmad is not only successful, but masterful in weaving a story that seamlessly blends truth and fiction into an emotional, exciting, evocative novel that is as impossible to forget as it is to put down once you’ve opened it.

Ahmad undertook a daunting task with The One Hundred.  Basing a novel on a true story requires intense imagination and an almost journalistic ability to stay true to the facts.  Ahmad is not only successful, but masterful in weaving a story that seamlessly blends truth and fiction into an emotional, exciting, evocative novel that is as impossible to forget as it is to put down once you’ve opened it.

Friday
Jun292012

Review: Jimmy Stu Lives

Jimmy Stu Lives! by Kent McDaniel

Reviewed by Ophelia Julien

Super Science Fiction with a Side of Grits

Reverend James Stuart Sloan, or Jimmy Stu as he prefers, is the founder of Nashville, Tennessee’s Church of the Living Lord, a three-thousand member congregation complete with a church on an acre-sized lawn and a televised service. As an inspirational preacher, Jimmy Stu looks to be at the top of his game. Except that he isn’t. During the latter part of his life, Jimmy Stu has begun to lose his connection with the Almighty, a deep slide into despair accelerated by the death of his beloved wife, Debbi. He is haunted by the idea that Debbi has not gone on to eternal life, but instead has disappeared into oblivion. Aware that his television ratings are starting to slip, prodded by a devout follower who understands that Jimmy Stu’s sermons of late have been phoned in, nudged along by an ambitious self-elected advisor, Jimmy Stu goes from the apathy of having no Easter sermon planned to the wild inspiration of starting a fundraiser to have his head preserved through cryonics so that he may carry out his mission in the future. In a scientific twist on that most venerated Christian holiday, Jimmy Stu Sloan sets up his very own resurrection and convinces his congregation to pay for it. 

The story really starts when Jimmy Stu is awakened 140 years into the future, where he learns that not only did his congregation facilitate his preservation, but that his church has grown into a powerful entity with its own police force and complete control over seven states in the South, as well as having heavy influence through parts of the Midwest. The formidable prime minister of the Church of the Living Lord is a direct descendant of Jimmy Stu’s once-upon-a-time self-elected advisor, Carl Windhorst. And to make matters even worse, Jimmy Stu has been awakened, or resurrected, by his great-great-great-great-nephew, Peter Alvarez, in direct defiance of said Prime Minister, Carl Windhorst III. With no time to get his bearings, Jimmy Stu becomes a fugitive along with nephew Peter and Peter’s companion, Shama Besic. 

Fleeing into rural Tennessee with the Church of the Living Lord’s best agent in pursuit, Jimmy Stu must come to terms with his new life, the mission he is expected to carry out, and survival in the woods outside suburban Nashville – complete with a beautiful moonshiner’s daughter named Connie Lee, who totes a rifle and is not afraid to use it. 

How many of us wouldn’t love a chance to go back into the past and correct one act, one omission, even one hastily-uttered sentence, if we could change the regretted outcome?

Author Kent McDaniel has incorporated teleportation, laser guns, air vans, and other technological devices to satisfy all sci-fi requirements, but he has also layered his book with more than just futuristic action and adventure. Protagonist Jimmy Stu has the opportunity to right the wrongs he set in motion with his last cynical and self-serving act. How many of us wouldn’t love a chance to go back into the past and correct one act, one omission, even one hastily-uttered sentence, if we could change the regretted outcome? And who better to make things right than Jimmy Stu, since it was his own quest for life beyond his natural span of years that made such a hash of the future? 

Additionally, this story takes a pointed, albeit tongue in cheek, look at what can happen when a country allows a church to insert itself into the governmental seat of power. The picture the author paints is far from pretty, disturbingly realistic, and perhaps just a touch allegorical at this time in U.S. history. 

Fans of the subgenre Southern Science Fiction will have a good time following Jimmy Stu as he literally stumbles from one mishap to the next, all while trying to figure out his own place in this confusing future time and win the heart of self-sufficient, self-defensive Connie Lee. Jimmy Stu is the proverbial Everyman: just that this Everyman has a body newly generated from DNA scans of his cryonically preserved head. Enjoy.